Why Does FIRE Care About Swear Words, Anyway?

By on May 19, 2010

It’s a testament to the power of language that the debate over the use of vulgar words has continued for as long as I can remember—and certainly even longer than that. From a legal perspective, of course, the debate is just about over. The Supreme Court case of Cohen v. California (1971) decided that Americans have the right to wear a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” plastered on it inside a courthouse, meaning that the government cannot punish a person for doing that. As there are few places where such attire is conventionally less appropriate than a courthouse (and good luck impressing the judge and jury while wearing such a jacket), the decision made it clear that profanities can be and usually are examples of protected speech. (Obviously, the public airwaves are the major legal exception to this.)

It’s a good thing, too. The prospect of the government punishing a private individual for simply uttering a word is frightening. Let’s say you hit your thumb with a hammer or swear at your clogged toilet and involuntarily bark out the f-word while a cop is around to hear you. Should you be punished, fined, or jailed if you can’t pay the fine? Of course not. What about if you see your friend get hit by a car? What about if you lose your job? What about if you get a disappointing grade that may affect your career or education prospects and privately curse about it to a classmate after class, which is what happened in yesterday’s case? Are we comfortable trusting the law or the authorities to make decisions on when a certain word is or is not punishable?

If we are comfortable with giving the government that much power, who decides what words are beyond the pale? If we just ban, say, George Carlin’s “seven dirty words,” that still leaves a whole lot of crass words that are still available to be used to shock bystanders. How do we compile a list?

And what about racial epithets? When is it acceptable to use the “n-word?” Never? Sometimes? Only in sociological works? Only in historical texts? Only in the right cultural contexts? There are probably a lot of people out there who are far more offended by hearing the “n-word” than the “f-word.” Should we ignore their preferences or take them into account? And once we decide to take them into account, shouldn’t we take everyone’s preferences into account? Some Muslims find the idea of images of Mohammed offensive. Should we make that punishable too? Where do we stop?

I have a baby daughter, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I would prefer her never to hear the words I am discussing in this blog entry. But I certainly don’t want to live in the kind of society that could somehow provide that guarantee, and thankfully, the Supreme Court has determined that we do not in fact live in such a society. Unfortunately, Hinds Community College (HCC) seems to have missed this memo.

If HCC were private, it would have the right to ban such speech—although I suspect such a ban would still be unwise, as it would likely only produce a student body full of scofflaws. However, HCC is public and as such is an agency of the government. That’s the one institution in our society that is specifically and legally forbidden from punishing adults for using four-letter words. Governmental institutions have a duty to follow the law. If they don’t, they can be sued, and ultimately they will lose. And they’ll do it all with the taxpayers’ money. Your money.

Hinds Community College can’t win this battle. Continuing to pursue these charges only illustrates that its leadership is willing to disregard clearly established law. As offensive as the “f-word” might be, seeing public officials ignore their legal duties is quite a bit worse.

Schools: Hinds Community College Cases: Hinds Community College: Student Barred from Class